Nov 11-15, 2018: 33rd ASEAN Summit working toward China-backed mega-trade deal
SINGAPORE - Sixteen signatures on the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the 33rd summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would cap an exceptional year for Singapore.
Singapore’s big year began with the April ASEAN summit, which made progress of a kind with the Code of Conduct (COC) of Parties in the South China Sea. Hosting the first North Korea-United States summit in June gave the city-state another flash of limelight.
This last opportunity to shine relates to the long-sought RCEP. The 16 nations have been negotiating the mega trade pact since Nov 2012, and Singapore’s trade minister Lim Hng Kiang told Reuters in March that countries engaged in the negotiations have a “strong political will” to conclude the talks by the end of 2018.
The RCEP bloc groups the 10 ASEAN members – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam – with their six free trade agreement partners – India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The RCEP appears to be moving to the final stages in tandem with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11), the agreement signed in Chile in Mar 2018. The United States withdrew from the pact in 2017. The agreements share several signatories.
Though they would deliver vast glory to Singapore, signatures on a binding agreement with Beijing to resolve contesting claims in the South China Sea remain elusive. The Diplomat describes 10-nation ASEAN as a consensus-based gathering of rivals, and China holds a strong hand in the economies and affairs of several members. The Philippines and Cambodia are particularly careful not to rile Beijing. The Diplomat noted in its report on the April ASEAN summit that the leaders achieved “consensus by deletion” of the most contentious aspects of the concluding statement on the South China Sea, an overt move to keep Beijing happy.
ASEAN reaffirmed its commitment at its April summit to resolving the dispute. The Diplomat reports the gathering agreed on practical measures that could reduce tensions, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation in contested areas. The measures include the testing of the hotline between ASEAN members and China “to manage emergencies in the South China Sea” and the operationalization of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).